Unlike the twentieth century’s failed autocracies, contemporary authoritarianism represents an alternative form of capitalism and a sustainable rival to liberal democracy. Or does it?
Democracy may be facing a backlash or, at least, have stalled; China has married a one-party dictatorship with capitalist modernization; rising energy prices have fuelled autocratic regimes from Central Asia and the Middle East to Venezuela; and there may even be signs that “these autocratic states are making common cause against the liberal Western states, with nascent alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”
But liberal democrats need not be overly concerned, argue Daniel Deudney of Johns Hopkins University and Princeton’s G. John Ikenberry. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, they dispute recent arguments of authoritarian resurgence, highlighting “deep contradictions between authoritarian political systems and capitalist economic systems”:
- rising living standards and education levels generating demands for political participation, articulated by a middle class with an interest in challenging unaccountable decision-makers;
- private property necessitates rule of law, and economic rights and institutions become “an intrinsic limitation on state power and, over time, create demands for wider political rights”;
- capitalist economic development produces a profusion of complexity and specialized activities, and this “diversity of socioeconomic interests leads to demands for competitive elections between multiple parties”.
Deudney and Ikenberry outline the “deeply rooted incapacities and dysfunctions …. inherent in the structure of autocratic hierarchies”:
- corruption arising from abuse of state power is hard to constrain in autocratic regimes without constitutional checks and balances;
- history suggests that the political cleavages and conflicts resulting from social and economic inequalities can only be resolved through universal-franchise democracy, political parties responsive to diverse needs and interests, and some firm of welfare state;
- autocratic hierarchies cannot perform optimally because of weak accountability and inadequate information. “Contemporary autocratic capitalist regimes … are still intrinsically impeded by censorship and the absence of open debate on policy alternatives,” as China’s 2003 SARS illustrated, with “severe consequences for public welfare and political legitimacy.”
Such contradictions and dysfunctions aside, the autocrats remain a political force in the world that, they suggest, needs to be engaged and integrated rather than confronted:
Proposals to “draw up the gates” of the democratic world and exclude nondemocratic states — with measures such as the expulsion of Russia from the G-8 …… promise to worsen relations and reinforce authoritarian rule. ……. Proposals such as a “concert of democracies” should be configured to deepen cooperation among democratic states and reinforce global institutions rather than to confront nondemocratic states. The United States and the other democratic nations should take the initiative in solving global resource and environmental problems and produce global frameworks for problem solving that draw in nondemocratic states along the way. The democratic states should orient themselves to pragmatically address real and shared problems rather than focusing on ideological differences.
Further to Deudney and Ikenberry’s arguments on corruption and accountability, Freedom House has an insightful posting on presidential succession – the authoritarian leaders for life – noting the diminishing prospect of a meaningful rotation of power in Russia, Zimbabwe and Venezuela. One consequence of this lack of accountability is a high level of corruption, detailed in a chart showing that such “politically managed systems” perform no better than 105 (out of 179 countries) in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.